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Israel releases newest spy satellite’s first photos, of Syria’s Palmyra ruins

Defense minister hails Ofek 16 and country’s other technologies as critical to security

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

A photograph of the Roman amphitheater in Palmyra, Syria, taken by Israel's Ofek 16 spy satellite, which was released by the Defense Ministry on August 24, 2020. (Defense Ministry)
A photograph of the Roman amphitheater in Palmyra, Syria, taken by Israel's Ofek 16 spy satellite, which was released by the Defense Ministry on August 24, 2020. (Defense Ministry)

The Defense Ministry on Tuesday released some of the first photographs taken by Israel’s newest spy satellite, showing ancient ruins in the central Syrian city of Palmyra.

On July 6, the Defense Ministry launched Ofek 16 into orbit and a week later activated its powerful camera arrays, but did not release the images taken by the satellite until now.

The three detailed black-and-white photographs focused on two main sites in Palmyra: a Roman amphitheater and the Temple of Bel, or Ba’al.

A Defense Ministry spokesperson said there was no hidden significance to the specific locations in Syria.

A photograph of the Temple of Bel in Palmyra, Syria, taken by Israel’s Ofek 16 spy satellite, which was released by the Defense Ministry on August 24, 2020. (Defense Ministry)

In 2018, shortly after Israel launched the satellite’s predecessor, Ofek 11, the Defense Ministry released its first images, showing Syrian dictator Bashar Assad’s palace, in what was seen as a tacit threat against the strongman, who is closely allied with Iran and the Hezbollah terror group.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz hailed the achievements of Ofek 16 and the rest of the country’s military technology.

“Israel knows to act against its enemies from up close and from afar and to defend its citizens anywhere and from anywhere,” Gantz said.

“The technologies that we are developing in the Defense Ministry and [defense] industries are an effective and significant tool in preserving the security of Israel,” he said.

A photograph of the Temple of Bel in Palmyra, Syria, taken by Israel’s Ofek 16 spy satellite, which was released by the Defense Ministry on August 24, 2020. (Defense Ministry)

In a statement, the Defense Ministry said the camera on Ofek 16 that took the photos was developed in a hitherto-classified joint project by the ministry’s research and development department, known by the Hebrew acronym MAFAT, and the Elbit Systems defense contractor.

According to the Defense Ministry, the camera “is of a much higher quality, with capability-to-weight ratios that are better than anything on the market.”

The ministry said the project to create a manufacturing line for cameras to be used in space cost hundreds of millions of shekels and included “factories to manufacture lenses and cylindrical mirrors, as well as a vacuum chamber that simulates the conditions of space and that is used to check the satellite cameras that have yet to be launched in space missions.”

Israel’s Ofek-16 reconnaissance satellite is seen before it was launched from central Israel on July 6, 2020. (Defense Ministry)

The Defense Ministry said Ofek 16 would undergo additional testing in orbit by engineers from MAFAT, Military Intelligence and the Israeli Aerospace Industries. Those were the bodies that helped manufacture the satellite before it was declared fully operational and handed over to the Israel Defense Forces’ visual intelligence-focused Unit 9900.

The reconnaissance satellite was fired into space using a Shavit launch vehicle that took off from a launchpad in the Palmachim air base in central Israel.

Ofek 16 is an “optoelectronic reconnaissance satellite with advanced capabilities,” the ministry said.

Israel is one of a small number of countries in the world that operate reconnaissance satellites, giving it advanced intelligence-gathering capabilities. As of April, that cadre included Iran, which successfully launched a spy satellite into orbit after years of failed attempts.

Israel launched its first satellite, Ofek-1, into space in 1988, footage of which was released by the Defense Ministry in 2018.

It was not until seven years later, in 1995, that Israel launched a reconnaissance satellite into space capable of photographing the Earth.

“Our network of satellites lets us watch the entire Middle East — and even a bit more than that,” said Shlomi Sudari, the head of IAI’s space program, after the Ofek 16 launch.

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